When my cell phone rings, the caller ID flashes the name of a fellow middle school mom. Because it's nearly time for the afternoon pickup, I assume she's looking for a last-minute ride home for her son.
"Hey, what's up?" I answer. "Do you need a taxi service?"
"No, I just need to vent," she says. "Is this a good time?"
You can't tell your girlfriend it's not a good time to vent. It's always a good time, or else the fact that she can't vent becomes something she must vent about. Women understand this rule.
I spend the next 15 minutes listening to one frustrated mom. She's had it with her seventh-grade son's school performance, cell-phone use, social life, and tone of voice.
She understands the role of hormones in his eye-rolling responses to her, but she's already sick of them. She's ready to pull the plug on the computer and reintroduce him to household chores as an avenue for character development.
"Am I crazy?" she asks, "or do I just have to accept that this is how it's going to be for the next five years?"
"No and no," I tell her. Then I tear into what has become my standard-issue parenting battle cry, aptly titled, "You go, Mom."
I get a fair number of calls like this. I think it's because the parents I know consider me an opinionated person who's willing to express myself, though I don't know how I got that reputation. (Oh, wait. Scratch that.)
Actually, because my husband and I are among the "older" parents in the social circles of our two younger children, we may be viewed as having gained some wisdom through the experiences of our two teenage daughters.
One friend even said, "You're a parenting expert" before asking her question about disciplining a middle schooler.
Um… parenting expert? No.
I have always said my husband and I are only "experts" at parenting the children God saw fit to give us, but there are days when I'm certain we're making mistakes that will cost years in therapy co-pays to undo. This is why we're teaching our children the importance of having a comprehensive health insurance plan when someday they seek out their various careers.
Nonetheless, I have learned a couple of things, and I'm not afraid to share them.
One is, I have learned that when we parents are exasperated and at our wits' end, we're not crazy.
We may be going crazy, but there's a distinction.
It's not crazy to expect a bright, capable 13-year-old to bring home a report card full of solid grades. It's not crazy to expect him to keep his cell-phone usage within the limits of your prepaid plan. It's not crazy to expect your turn on the family computer to come sometime before midnight or to have at least a clear path to walk through your child's bedroom or to recognize the names of the people he mentions casually in conversation.
Crazy is when you don't.
The second thing I've learned is there's a difference between accepting that adolescence includes certain normal, appropriate changes in personality and behavior and believing that all children must morph into teenage space aliens in order to achieve maturity.
I'm nearly all alone out here on that, to be sure.
Most experts — the real ones — say parents should expect our teens to be cranky. Their widely held opinions say children need to be free to treat us rudely because that is how they assert their independence.
Meanwhile, we shouldn't be surprised when they behave in a perfectly pleasant manner when out in the world.
The theory holds that when they're home, teens need to let their guard down because their social environments are so demanding.
I think this is how teens affirm their widely held opinions that parents and other adults are dolts who can be "dissed" and ignored.
For example, it's one thing to respond to a parental question with the occasional "I knooow, Mom," the closest thing a respectful teen might get to yelling, "Will you please back off." It's another thing to yell, "Back off."
When I share my parenting worldview, I sometimes sound like a preacher at a tent revival. My "You go, Mom" speech is just that — you go, Mom.
Assert your right to be the adult. Model and expect high standards of behavior. Don't give in to the notion that every teenager has a right to be rude or monopolize all the cellular minutes or ignore your questions about homework or make socializing the most important part of every day.
Be indignant. Be righteous. Be annoyed. Be forceful.
Can I get an "Amen"?
As a parenting culture, we have bought into the myth that adolescence is ugly. (Okay, it is, but that's not the point.) Sadly, the conventional wisdom has us dropping our standards so low, we need a shovel to find the threshold of what is acceptable.
Of course, it's way harder to articulate higher standards of behavior and demand compliance than it is to shrug our shoulders and say, "What can you do? He's a teenager." It takes a mom who's willing to vent — and then rededicate herself to the vision of what a respectful, responsible teen can be.
I'm not sure if my "you go" speech did the trick for the mom who called, but it sure got me fired up.